Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system of mammals. Once the virus enters its nervous system, the animal has less than 0.1% chance of survival. Rabies is found on every continent except Antarctica and is one of the most feared diseases in the world.

The earliest written reference to rabies dates back to 1000 B.C., which makes it one of the oldest diseases in the world. Today, 22 million people are exposed annually to rabies. More than 59,000 people die of rabies each year worldwide, with over 95% of these deaths occurring in Africa and Asia as a result of exposure to an infected dog. Tragically, up to 60% of all dog bites and rabies deaths occur in children under the age of 15. Although treatment is rarely successful, the sobering fact is that 100% of human rabies deaths can be prevented with current knowledge, technology, and vaccines.

Rabies and Humans

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transmitted between animals and people. Any mammal can be host to the virus. Common carriers of the disease include:

  • Wild animals – such as bats, raccoons, skunks, fox, monkeys, and coyotes;
  • Farm animals – such as cows, goats, camels and horses;
  • Pet animals – such as cats, ferrets, and dogs.

Transmission occurs when saliva containing the rabies virus is introduced into an opening in the skin, usually via the bite of a rabid animal. The virus enters the body at the site of the wound and multiplies in the muscle for a varying amount of time (the incubation period) before migrating into the nervous system, at which point, symptoms begin to appear. The incubation period for rabies in humans is usually between 1-12 weeks. However, in some cases, the incubation period could be a year or longer.

The initial symptoms of rabies are often similar to those of the flu, including headache, nausea or vomiting, anxiety or confusion, and fever accompanied by tingling or numbness at the site of the wound. As the disease progresses, clinical signs can include, change in behaviour; lack of coordination; hydrophobia, as the patient develops a fear of drinking due to paralysis of swallowing muscles; involuntary movements of the face; hypersensitivity to light, sound and touch; involuntary muscle twitching; and paralysis and seizures. Death occurs after several days due to cardiorespiratory arrest.

Diagnosis of rabies is often challenging because the disease has a wide array of symptoms which are not always present. Once symptoms manifest, however, rabies is 99.9% fatal. Recovery is possible only if the patient receives a course of vaccinations immediately after exposure to a rabid animal, before onset of symptoms; the vaccines prevent the virus from reaching the nervous system.

Rabies and Dogs

Each year, millions of dogs suffer and die due to the disease itself and also indiscriminate culling prompted by fear of the disease. The killing of dogs actually creates a territorial vacuum that encourages new dogs to move into the area, which then leads to a repeat of the culling process. World experts all agree that dog culling is ineffective in controlling the spread of rabies, but fear continues to drive local culling efforts.

In dogs, the incubation period of rabies is 21-80 days. Symptoms include agitation; fever; change in behaviour; excessive salivation; difficulty in swallowing; pawing at the mouth; extreme sensitivity to light, movement and sound; and paralysis. Eventually, the loss of muscle control leads to inability to breathe, and then death.

A definite diagnosis of rabies requires a biopsy of brain tissue, which is done after the animal has died. If an animal presents with symptoms of rabies, the veterinarian will have no choice but to humanely euthanise the animal to prevent the disease from spreading.

Rabies - A Neglected Disease

The World Health Organisation considers rabies one of 20 Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), which affects the world’s poorest people, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and disease. Over 95% of human rabies deaths are from Africa and Asia, mostly from marginalized and impoverished rural communities. Approximately 80% of human cases occur in rural areas. Although effective human vaccines and immunoglobulins exist for rabies, they are not readily available or accessible to those in need. In some case, the rabies post-exposure prophylaxis may cost more than a family’s monthly income.

World Rabies Day

While rabies may be 99.9% fatal, it is also 100% preventable by vaccination.

World Rabies Day was launched in 2007 by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) as the first global advocacy, education, and awareness campaign for rabies. Held annually on September 28, it marks the anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur, who developed the first rabies vaccine in 1885.

Because treatment for rabies is rarely successful, education in local communities about prevention – from vaccination and rabies awareness to dog behaviour and bite prevention – is imperative for controlling the disease and saving the lives of humans and animals. The campaign has the support of all international health organisations and major stakeholders, including the WHO, OIE, FAO and the US CDC, among many others.

World Rabies Day aims to achieve (1) elimination of rabies spread by dogs to reach zero human deaths by 2030; (2) collaboration at all levels to eliminate rabies globally, because disease knows no borders; and (3) vaccination of dogs, up to 70% of dogs in at-risk areas, as the foundation of rabies prevention efforts. In 2022, the theme is Rabies: One Health, Zero Deaths, which emphasises the connections among human health, animal health and the state of the environment, to preventing rabies under the One Health approach, and reminds the global community that rabies elimination is possible, that we have a goal (Zero by 30), and that we stand united against this dreadful disease.

IAPWA's Work

IAPWA have vaccinated thousands of dogs against rabies through our projects and support programmes since we were established including funding targeted rabies campaigns for World Animal Day.

Our upcoming IAPWA Borneo project in Sandakan will incorporate rabies management through mass vaccination as an essential component of our Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (CNVR) activities. We also look forward to collaborating with GARC on this project.

Learn more by clicking here.

Written by: Joy Lee
Programme Manager, Malaysia – Humane Dog Population Management